Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the Lord give you Peace!
Spiritual joy is an otherworldly joy that is experienced in this world. For a Christian, it is the crown of grace that Jesus places upon our head for surrendering our heart to his wisdom and watching his footsteps.
To paraphrase the words of Saint Peter’s First Letter (1:22-23), by obedience to the truth (Christ) you have purified yourself for a genuine love for your brothers; therefore, love one another constantly from the heart (pure affection). Your rebirth (joy) has come, not from a destructible seed (lust) but an indestructible one (compassion), through the living and enduring word of God (contemplation). The word lust here is used in its broadest sense.
Lust that is a barrier to joy is not only an inordinate way of looking at our body and those of others but also a self-serving way of thinking about the material world. It enslaves us to unhealthy or stunted visions of things, including our own physical being. True joy is the fruit of Christ-like love. Therefore, it marks our liberation from false images of who we are, what we are and why we are.
Like peace, joy is both a journey and a destination. Its purest form is a beatific vision but the process of building a kingdom of peace and true joy offers its own rewards. We sow tiny seeds. We water and weed, and we watch as God manages the rest. Where there is hatred, ours is to sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. His is to grow these and add blossoms of peace and joy.
Each step in the direction of joy, which is love, is taken on the way of truth and life. It suffers no lies. Nor is the sojourner strained by selfishness. Rather, God’s own Holy Spirit invigorates him.
Despite our psyche’s inclinations and compulsions, God’s Spirit invites us to divest our heart of unwholesome burdens. The journey to joy progresses most efficiently, therefore, with purity, which is not perfection. It is the direction in which we face that matters—the deepest desire of our heart and the willingness to slowly discard distractions.
Thomas A Kempis wrote, “A man is raised up from the earth by two wings—simplicity and purity. There must be simplicity in his intention and purity in his desires. Simplicity leads to God, purity embraces and enjoys him.” We may conclude that true joy rises in us when our life is focused on what produces it, namely true love, and when our heart is liberated from unhealthy desire, which would in effect be either isolation or selfishness.
If your heart is free from ill-ordered affection, no good deed will be difficult for you. If you aim at and seek after nothing but the pleasure of God and the welfare of your neighbor, you will enjoy freedom within.
– Thomas A Kempis, Imitation of Christ
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Spiritual joy requires discipline. It needs effort to set an appropriate course and to avoid circumstances that are antithetical to true joy. As Henri Nouwen writes in Dispelling the Darkness, “It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of earth are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies.” Nouwen adds, “The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.”
Make progress a deliberate exercise, always avoiding heroic plans that are bound to fail and frustrate future efforts. Focus on four aspects of life: physical, emotional, social and spiritual. Strive to keep balance between these. Set achievable goals each week, and figure out how to reach them.
First, the physical. William James wrote, “Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by little gracious exercises every day.” If you are totally inactive, a walk around the block would be a reasonable first step. Later you may consider longer outings. If you once were active in sports, resume activity at a modest level. Remember always to avoid setting yourself up for disappointment. Reward yourself for small successes.
Reflecting on the Resurrection of Christ, Tom Ryan, who writes periodically on the vital link between physical wellbeing and spirituality, commented in a 2005 article, “The more attuned we become to the flesh God embraced and in which God dwells, exulting in its harmony, strength, and flexibility, learning how to bear its tensions and sufferings gracefully, the more we glorify our Savior who rose from the dead, wounds and all, and chose to call it ‘home.’”
Second, emotional. Saint Francis wrote, “Evil cannot attain a person who possesses joy.” Figure out what gives you joy and plan for it. Plan to avoid things that sap your joy. You will find joy comes more easily if you deal with emotional obstacles and are honest about your feelings. Your plan may be to talk to a friend or a therapist about something that troubles you. You will want to share with others your appreciation of small beautiful things that are observed in the normal course of living.
We cannot avoid painful situations entirely, but we can take steps to reduce their power to impair our joy. Increasing our capacity for self-esteem and gratitude can help to ward off anger and pain in the future. Gratitude can also widen the horizon of personal growth. In time, we can develop an attitude that finds grace in all situations, including difficult ones. According to Dr. Francis Lu, “What gratitude does for you is as important as what it does for others. It calms your fears, strengthens your courage, opens your heart for adventure – gratefulness heals.”
Third, social. Benjamin Disraeli wrote, “We are all born to love; it is the principle of existence and its only end.”
We all have a need to belong, to share our life with others in a fully human community. Jean Vanier who understands humanity’s deep loneliness wrote, “The longer we journey on the road to inner healing and wholeness, the more the sense of belonging grows and deepens. The sense is not just one of belonging to others and to a community. It is a sense of belonging to the universe, to the earth, to the air, to the water, to everything that lives, to all humanity. If the community gives a sense of belonging, it also helps us to accept our aloneness in a personal meeting with God. Through this, the community is open to the universe and to humankind.” (Community and Growth)
Fourth, spiritual. Carl Jung wrote, “None of my patients has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”
At critical moments in our lives, questions about God arise almost inevitably—either for or against. Often we turn to the religious traditions of our youth for solace and hope. If we are open-minded about them, we discover in our heart what Ron Rolheiser called “a holy longing.” In time, we discover the link between life, freedom and joy. In an interview, Rolheiser commented, “As John of the Cross says in his poem, a good spiritual life is geared to help you escape from self-centeredness. You walk away from your heartaches, your headaches and your restlessness; that’s the true freedom. John would have a very different interpretation of freedom than our culture does.”
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.
– John 10: 10
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Throughout 2008, our Franciscan reflections have focused on finding true joy. First, we strove to understand its meaning within the Christian tradition, distinguishing it from pleasure and linking it to love. Then, we explored various avenues, particularly finding transcendent joy through a life of simplicity, gratitude and generosity, and by discovering our unique identity, giftedness and mission. Finally, we resolved to live according to spiritually based life principles and making life-affirming choices in the physical, emotional, social and spiritual realms.
Above all, let us remember that while joy is elusive, it is not abstract or illusory. It is perhaps the most concrete human experience. It is built on the solid foundation of authenticity, which ultimately is only possible once we become most fully human by transcending the limits of our ego and engaging in genuinely loving relationships. The difficulty that we have in grasping and maintaining joy is a measure of our woundedness and fear. Over time, these have bound us to false identities, misunderstandings about our giftedness and ambiguity about our mission. That is why the most vital of life’s tasks is our struggle to accept God’s gift of freedom—freedom to know ourselves truthfully, freedom to be fully alive, and freedom to make good choices. This is Christ’s greatest gift to humanity.
Freedom is what we have—Christ has set us free! Stand, then, as free people, and do not allow yourself to become slaves again.
– Galatians 5: 1
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At Christmas and throughout the New Year, may the Holy Spirit graciously fill you with abundant gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, piety, courage and love of the Lord.
Fraternally in joy and hope
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries